The job of Santa

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, December 5th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Store Santas! Christmas brings a slew of temporary employment opportunities. You have your gift wrappers, your personal shoppers and your Christmas light crews. But Santa, he gets the corner office. The C-Suite. C for Claus, that is.

REICHARD: But like any job—well, except ours of course, St. Nick—it comes with its share of headaches. WORLD Radio’s Katie Gaultney caught up with a professional Santa and Mrs. Claus to learn more about the highs and lows.

KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: For nearly two decades, Jim Hammon has played Santa during the Christmas season. To have that long of a run takes more than great costumes and a jolly disposition. It takes serious preparation and know-how. By now, “Santa Jim” has a few tricks up his red, velvet sleeves.

JIM: You don’t know it, but Santa normally carries two gift bags. One is full of toys, and the other one is much smaller. It’s full of puppy pads.

Yes, puppy pads to protect himself from the over-eager preschool set. They sit in his lap, wipe their noses, and pull his beard. And Jim not only tolerates it—he’s downright jovial about it.

But Santa needs more than cookies and eggnog to guard against all those germs:

JIM: I start a real strong regimen of the vitamins and the vitamin C… I start that easily into October, just to build up the immune system a little bit because children share.

It’s not just strep throat he’s risking. Our lawsuit-happy society means Santa’s gotta carry expensive liability insurance. In some cases, a kid could get injured—

JIM: Little kids can be running up to you and fall and skin their knee every time—We’ve not had any tragedies happen, but we’ve talked to other Santas who have, and the insurance was a real lifesaver for those folks.

But in other cases, parents fear Santa did something out of line. Jim’s wife, Crystal, started joining him as Mrs. Claus a few years ago. She explains:

CRYSTAL: Unfortunately, they get their pictures taken and they say Santa did inappropriate things and whatnot, which is why he wears white gloves, so that they’re very obvious in a picture as a self-protection because there’s been a lot of lawsuits…

That’s not the only way in which a 21st century Santa sees the brokenness of our fallen world. And on this day, one little girl—about 9 or 10—catches Santa Jim off guard.

AUDIO: So what do you want for Christmas, do you know? I want to go back home. Where’s home? With her. Well—okay… It’s a long story.

Foster care, divorce, custody battles… Jim says heartbreaking stuff comes up now and then, and it can be tough to offer a perfect response. He’s been able to draw on his own experience as an adopted child—and the historical St. Nicholas of Myra, who, legend has it, was orphaned.

JIM: Yeah, most everything I can usually adapt, adjust with. I gotta admit, that one kinda surprised me…

But then there are other sticky situations. More and more, with unconventional hairstyles and gender-neutral clothing, it can be hard to tell if that’s a Johnny or a Suzy sitting on his lap. After one of those encounters, Santa Jim and his helper for the day, “Ellie the Elf,” agree it’s tricky.

JIM: That situation is always really tough for me. Yes. Because I don’t always know if it’s a boy or a girl. Oh. The other stuff I can’t do anything about, but I should be able to tell if it’s a boy or a girl. I think it’s getting harder! It is!

Another quirk of being a modern-day Santa is navigating all those selfies. Depending on the gig, Santa may be paid by the hour or the day. But occasionally, he gets a cut of the photo sales. So parents who sneak free pics on their phones are effectively taking money from Santa.

JIM: That’s the business end of it. Santa needs to get paid, turns out to be it’s through pictures…

One perk of being a Santa in our high-technology era is the virtual contact with other Santas. Jim is a part of a Santa fraternity that connects him with other Santas all over the world. They use social media to ask questions and plan in-person gatherings, sharing tricks of the trade:

JIM: We get together every three or four months and just sit around and talk and update on different situations, “How do we handle this, how did you handle this,” and it’s just shared information. It’s really, really quite wonderful…

Some say there’s no place for Santa in a Christ-follower’s holiday. He’s a distraction, confusing children about the true meaning of Christmas: God sending his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

And certainly, as believers, even Jim and Crystal get a little weary of the over-commercialization of Christmas. But Jim says, it’s the parents’ job—not Santa’s—to train their children about what really counts.

JIM: The materialistic part—that’s their parent’s program that they have to kind of work through. It’s also the parents’ job to introduce them to the real meaning of the season.

Jim and Crystal insist it doesn’t have to be “Jesus or Santa.” And Crystal says Santa’s origin story, based on the real-life St. Nicholas, promotes higher ideals than materialism.

CRYSTAL: He actually was a saint, and it’s not just about giving of gifts, but giving of time and love. And that’s kind of what Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus portray.

She’s had several encounters as Mrs. Claus with kids who just need to know someone sees and cares about them this Christmas.

CRYSTAL: And the kids have had that one-on-one where they feel special, and I think that’s a big part of the season is just for each child to feel like they count.

Crystal—Mrs. Claus—says in these times of increasing division, Santa is a refreshingly unifying character.

CRYSTAL: It doesn’t matter who the person is, rich or poor, or whatever, when they see Santa, the—the smile is there. No matter what their circumstances, almost always, the smile appears. If you can do that, you’ve made a change, you’ve made a difference.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Katie Gaultney, reporting from Dallas, Texas.

(Photo/Katie Gaultney)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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